Strong, pragmatic and determined | Sunday Observer
The undying courage of the world’s first female Prime Minister

Strong, pragmatic and determined

30 July, 2022

Sunethra Bandaranaike, the elder daughter of the World’s First Female Prime Minister, Sirima Bandaranaike, who never stepped into politics, but stood with the mother during her days of happiness and sorrow alike, shares with us the sensitive story of yet another mother, and the political saga of a legendary woman with a ‘unique first’ to her credit. Part 1 of this interview was published last week

The historic wedding between Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and Sirima Ratwatte in 1940 has been dubbed the wedding of the century. When asked whether her mother had ever told her children about her marriage to SWRD, the then Minister of the UNP regime who later founded the SLFP to emerge as a legendary Prime Minister in 1956, Bandaranaike assured that her mother never discussed it with them.

“No, she was a very closed person, a very private person. Women were brought up like that in those days.”

“She never told us anything, but we discovered obviously from her sister and her brothers how they met, the courtship period and how the youngest brother was always made to chaperon her! If my father went to Balangoda, (he was then a minister) he took her out for a drive and the youngest brother had to chaperon. Even if they were sitting in the sitting room of Balangoda Walawwa chatting, I think the little boy was made to sit there. So I was told that my father used to bring some sweets in his pocket and quietly give it to him saying “Putha, go somewhere and have your sweets and come and quickly get rid of him for a short period of time!” Bandaranaike said laughingly.

“It is obviously very boring to be sitting there all the time with the younger brother of your bride-to-be!” she added.

But all that relationship was conducted very properly, Bandaranaike assured.

“It was very definitely a proposal. There was a 17-year age gap. My grandparents from both sides were looking for the absolutely perfectly suitable spouse for their son, for their daughter. So here came the proposal, and both parties thought ‘excellent choice, the right family background, and everything was perfect.’ ‘My father came from a strong Anglican family in the Church of England, my mother came from a very strong Buddhist family, but my father at a very young age converted to Buddhism and he had also written as to why he became a Buddhist. So he was Buddhist and it made everything easier. My father never went to church, my mother did not have to go to church, unless it was a family wedding or something like that. Both were Buddhists, so that worked out nicely”.


Sirima Bandaranaike’s role as a graceful charming yet obedient wife had always been discussed. She is still being cited as an epitome of female grace and a beloved wife who always stood by her husband in all his necessities.

Nobody would have expected her to argue with her husband.

“But she did, all the time,” revealed her daughter laughingly, but assured that it was only on political matters.

The mornings when her father and mother had papaya and tea in the sitting room upstairs in Tintagel are etched on her memory.

“You see, in the mornings they used to sit together in the sitting room upstairs having their cups of tea and a piece of papaya. This was what happened every day”, Bandaranaike recounted her memories from the mid-fifties.

“And my father had a lot of problems after he became the Prime Minister, there were the left- wing parties going on strike all the time, making demands and my father encouraged them. And this used to upset my mother, because she could see how stressed out my father was whenever he came home in the evenings and she was very concerned that it would affect his health. So she used to tell him in the morning, “Now Solomon, if I were you, this is how I would do it”, I have heard that more than once. And her way of doing it was not at all the way my father wanted to do it. She took a more strict position. But he used to say “Yes, Sirima, Yes Sirima” and listened to her and did exactly what he wanted!” added Bandaranaike laughingly, still living in that beautiful memory.

Asked whether her mother was interested in the matters of State during her husband’s tenure of office Bandaranaike was quick to respond: ‘Oh, yes”.

“She used to always be deeply involved in his political life from the outside, finding out what’s happening. Sometimes when Cabinet ministers used to come home, (the Cabinet was very small and could sit at the dining table.) She used to probably sit a little bit and listen, or bring cups of tea and hear conversations. She, as an outsider, in a distant way, participated in all of that. She was fully aware of what was happening and gave her views very strongly.”


Finally, the tragic day arrived. September 25, 1959. It was the day that changed everything – the direction of her life, her fate, and her destiny. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike who was hailed as the People’s Prime Minister was assassinated in broad daylight at his own house at a time when political assassinations were even unheard of.

Grief was written all over her face as she recalled the fateful day.

“Well, we were in school when it happened. Our domestic came and whispered something in the ear of our teacher and we were taken out of class saying that the father had fallen ill. I was 16, Chandrika was 14 and Anura was 10. We were taken out of school, then went and picked up my brother, and then were taken home.”

The three of them then reached home to witness blood all over the passage. “ We were shocked as we did not know what had happened.”

By that time her father had been taken to the hospital. “My mother was in the hospital, so my aunt, uncle, and nearly everybody rallied around us. We were not taken to the hospital on that day.”

She recalled how they were eagerly planning to visit their father in the hospital, but when they were getting ready to go, the most shocking message that they never wanted to hear reached their ears.

The caring wife and the mother of three, how did she face the tragedy that befell her and her children?

“I must say that she was a very strong person,” her daughter assured.

“If you look at her whole record, she was the eldest of a family of six. Her mother placed a lot of responsibilities on her. Then she was in the boarding, she was in Girl Guides and played sports and all of that. When she came home having finished with school, she helped her father in the social work he was involved in. It was the time of War. When she got married she did a lot of Mahila Samithi work. All those things developed her strength and leadership qualities and determination,” Bandaranaike went on.

But still, it was a tremendous shock for her, her daughter reminisced. Surely it would be a shock for anybody. One minute ago he was alive, they had their papaw and coffee together and he came down to greet the people and the next minute he was shot!

“It was a terrible trauma for her, but she handled it well”. Bandaranaike recalled how she faced the tragedy boldly. Surely she was burdened with more responsibilities.

“It was a horrible experience. Because we had very protected lives, don’t forget that. We were protected from all things that would have caused any pain of mind to us. Then suddenly from one extreme we were swung/thrown to the other extreme. He was shot in his own house. We walked in there to see blood all over the floor. We were young and then he died.”

She recounted how one horrible experience was followed by more horrible ones thus creating a chain of heartrending episodes.

“..And then the body arrived. It was kept first in our Rosmead Place residence, then in Parliament. Next, in Horagolla. Hundreds and thousands of people coming, rolling on the ground, crying, touching his feet, banging their heads. Then finally of course the burial. These experiences were unimaginably traumatic for us.”

Still, her mother had hardly any time to grieve in silence. Soon came the request from the SLFP to take over the party leadership. Her mother never wanted to lead the party initially. The pressure mounted as the party faced an election defeat under poor leadership. Finally, she decided to steer the party. Bandaranaike revealed that even at a young age she realised that it was not fair to pressurise her mother.

“I said, you think of everything and take your own decision. The other two somehow were persuaded to tell her to take it up.”

It was much later that Sirima Bandaranaike revealed the true cause behind her well-thought-out decision.

“She later told us that she went to the shrine room, the one in the house, and prayed because she did not want to take it up. She definitely did not. But here’s a big force pushing her saying ‘your husband started this party, he sacrificed his life for this party, this party has to go forward’. So when there’s pressure like that coming upon a person who was very duty conscious, she could not resist it.”

“She said she prayed many times in the shrine room, to Budu Hamuduruwo plus her late husband and the pantheon of gods to guide her in helping her make a decision and it was only then that she said yes. So her final decision I think may have been based on calming her mind by praying. “ Bandaranaike revealed what propelled her mother to arrive at the decisive decision which was strong enough to completely change the political history of the nation.


“My mother loved roses and orchids. And she had lots of them, particularly roses, in her garden at Rosmead Place and also in our house in Nuwara Elilya. She recounted how her mother amidst her busy schedule found time to tend the roses.

“She had a gardener who was always at hand to help her. But she was very fond of gardening. She was very fond of plants and spent a fair amount of time doing that.”


Sirima Bandaranaike was however not a brilliant cook. “ But young ladies when they grow up at home, invariably the mother makes sure that they can cook. When they are given off in marriage she should be able to cook for the husband. Those were traditional beliefs in those days. So she could cook.”

“If she wanted something very specially tasty, she used to go to the kitchen and make it herself.”

“Polos Ambula was her favourite. Nobody can beat the Polos Ambula she used to make,” she said.

It was with nostalgia that Bandaranaike revisited the early days of her life where her mother used to make excellent desserts and cakes. “She used to make those for our birthday parties.”

‘My sister was born in June, and I was born in July. A two-year gap. But one month apart. So both parties were put together and we had beautiful dresses, beautiful cakes, short eats and all school friends were invited,” a wide smile crossed her face.

Love for grandchildren

Sirima Bandaranaike dearly loved her grandchildren. Bandaranaike recalled how her mother adored her sister Chandrika’s two children.

“She loved her grandchildren. She was not all that well, so she could not really enjoy their presence the way a younger grandmother would have done, but she adored them and always inquired after them because they lived next door. She used to walk across there and spend time with them or they used to come across and be with her. And when first her granddaughter went abroad, then her grandson, she was devastated. She was so upset; she wanted to speak to them all the time. She loved them dearly.”

Qualities inherited from mother

When asked what qualities she had inherited from her legendary mother, Bandaranaike was too quick to respond “Quiet,” but soon added “not as quiet as she was!”

“Seriousness, high values, and principles, never waver from them if I can avoid it, highly organised,” she went on.

“In fact, all my friends, even my sister, and her two children say I am a control freak and I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I don’t care what they say, but I am highly organised, neat and tidy and everything must happen smoothly,” she said laughingly.

World leader

Sirima Bandaranaike’s skillful Foreign Policy has always been subjected to discussion.

She shone in the international field. She put this tiny country on the world map.”

Bandaranaike attended the very first Non-Aligned summit in Belgrade in 1961 with her mother.

“Yes, I remember the event, because I went with her to Belgrade for the very first Non-Aligned conference in 1961. And we had one here (in 1976). I went with her to New York when she addressed the UN General Assembly as the Head of the Non-Aligned Movement. She believed in not leaning on either of the superpowers. These countries like us must form an independent group with a strong voice, Bandaranaike explained her mother’s stand in handling diplomatic relations.

She also explained how Sirima Bandaranaike stood firmly against nuclear weapons and strove for self-sufficiency in food. Recalling the cordial friendship her mother maintained with her Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi, Bandaranaike said, ‘Oh, they were like sisters. They got on beautifully.”

Bandaranaike reminisced how her mother stepped in and offered to negotiate between China and India when the two Asian giants had developed animosity towards each other.

“She believed in peaceful settlements to problems, not violence.”

Elaborating on her mother’s close friendship with Indira Gandhi, Bandaranaike recounted how it all started.

“I mean there was a connection between my father and Nehru. Don’t forget it started there. They were all in the same era. They fought for independence, just received independence. So they were all on the same line of thinking.”

The very first visit of the three of them was on an invitation by Pundit Nehru on a private visit at his personal invitation.

“We went and stayed in his residence and he was so kind to us. He loved children. We had a wonderful time. That was our first visit to India. We went to all the sites. The Taj Mahal and other places”, she said.

The friendship between the two graceful female leaders was immensely beneficial to Sri Lanka.

“Don’t forget the Kachchativu and the Plantation Tamils issue. It was done peacefully, through discussions and negotiations, not confrontations,” Bandaranaike added.

She recalled that it was her father who opened the doors for the so-called Socialist block of countries including Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, and East Germany.

“And they were truly appreciative of it and my mother continued her excellent relations with those countries.”

Bandaranaike also recounted the great diplomatic ties Sri Lanka maintained with China, especially during PM Chou En-Lai’s tenure.


When asked whether she could remember the heinous murder of Premawathi Manamperi during the 1971 insurgency and how Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike reacted to it Bandaranaike noted that she was not in the country during that time.

“I was out of the country, I must confess when that happened. But you know they were charged and indicted and given jail sentences. As a woman and a mother, she was horrified that this could have happened and those things were not happening that often in those days. She was absolutely horrified and she was determined that justice should be done and justice was done.”

Civic rights

After having served the country as Prime Minister from 1960-65 and 1970-77, Sirima Bandaranaike suffered an election defeat in 1977. She was deprived of her Civic rights by the ruling UNP government in 1980.

‘It was extremely unfair and unjust and it was a political vendetta of the highest order and she was deeply shattered. But she recovered quickly with the strong support of her party. The party stood by her solidly and she gave leadership to the party whatever way she could without violating any rules right through the period until her civic rights were restored.”

Mother and son

Bandaranaike saw her brother Anura Bandaranaike “as a spoilt darling of a privileged family.” The political conflict between the mother and the son was nothing new.

Bandaranaike recalled how her mother handled the situation extremely well, even though she was deeply hurt.

“He believed that he was going to be the crown prince. The poor chap was misled by everybody by giving him that impression. He was a wonderful human being, gentle and kind, never a harsh word, but went off the mark because of the impressions given to him.”

As Bandaranaike recollected, her brother did not want to work hard, but he wanted positions.

“And there came a time when my mother realised that her daughter number two was way ahead of her son. She was a born politician, every drop of blood in her body is politics, and she was committed, she worked hard and she wanted to get places in the party and she overshadowed my brother.”

Her mother was extremely moved by the decision her son took to join the UNP.

“She was extremely upset. Of course, she would be. Here is a party that deprived her of her civic rights and in 1977 when JR swept into power what they did to the SLFP supporters, particularly in the Attanagalla electorate was horrible. So my mother just could not accept it. I think her illness also could have been due to stress over things like that.”

“I mean how could SWRD Bandaranaike’s and Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s son join the UNP. It is unthinkable, but he did it,” she said disgustingly.

Much earlier than this, in 1983 there had been two factions in the party called the Sirima faction and Maithri faction.

Recounting how her mother handled those internal conflicts in the party, Bandaranaike said it was a period of turmoil.

My brother was the one who broke away taking Maithripala Senanayake, PBG Kalugalla, and powerful people in the party. It was a left-right conflict. Those who were leaning more towards the left of the party and those who were leaning more towards the right of the party belonged to the latter faction. And they went and captured the party headquarters, and filed a case in courts saying they were the rightful SLFP. All that was extremely upsetting for my mother and I do believe that over the years, however, strong she was, hard work and stress took their toll on her body and her mind and her final stroke could have been due to the accumulation of all those things. I cannot possibly say. But I believe that it played a vital role.

When asked whether she had ever seen her mother breaking into tears over her own son’s moves against her, an emotive daughter responded in the affirmative.

“Yes, she did, very privately.”

“More than telling me she used to talk to her sister, her brothers, and with her doctors (she was close to them). She used to talk to them, not so much to me about her issues.”

There was a time that the son and the mother did not talk to each other. “It was a very bad period for her and the party”.

But she forgave him as any genuine mother would do. “Latterly, they were on good terms”.

1987 elections

Bandaranaike said that her mother should have and would have won the 1987 Presidential election if not for two factors.

“One is R. Premadasa had by that time got around the JVP and he used the JVP to bring terror into the country at the time of election campaigning and particularly on the day of voting. They unleashed such terrors in the villages that the villagers did not go to vote and then they stuffed the ballot boxes for Premadasa.”

“Second one is my sister and others who had broken away from the SLFP. She and her husband had formed their own party called the SLMP and they fielded Ossie Abeygunasekera as the candidate. All the votes that Ossie got were the votes that my mother would have got.”


When asked whether her mother possessed any quality that she disliked, Bandaranaike paused for a while calling it a tough question.

“Give me a minute to think, because this is very tough to think. I would say no, quite honestly. Looking back, when I was very young I would have said ‘yes’ . I disliked the fact that she is laying down too many rules and regulations, but I would say now looking back ‘there was absolutely no quality of hers that I disliked.’ I am truthfully telling you now. That’s why I am a great admirer of hers.”

“I think she is one of the most courageous people I have ever known in my life, in this country, somebody who was close to me, somebody whose courage I have experienced. We can say people like Nelson Mandela were very courageous, and Aung San Suu Kyi was very courageous. You can put down a whole list of people, but they are not people I had personal experience with.”

1994 - Mother - daughter duo

“She never wavered in the face of crisis and she did face crisis. There was great inner strength in her. That could be due to belief in Buddhist preaching and Buddhist philosophy.”

In 1994, the SLFP came back to power after 17 long years of UNP rule. President Chandrika Kumaratunga then appointed her own mother as the Prime Minister.

“My mother was then after the stroke and she was not well to enjoy the position. But my sister did the right thing. In appreciation of all the service rendered by my mother to this country and also because my mother selected her as the Presidential candidate, she gave her that position as PM, but really she could not play much of a role.”

Her daughter finally said that what she wanted to do was nothing but good for the country. “Certain things she did may have backfired, but she must have honestly believed that her activities would benefit the country.”

Sirima Bandaranaike outlived many of her contemporaries including her political rivals. When she breathed her last in 2000 she had earned many feathers in her cap.

As a result of her premiership, nobody questions that female politicians can be strong, pragmatic, and determined. She was not a feminist, but her feminine grace and charm adorned by her brains did certainly feminise the language of Sri Lankan politics.

The full interview “Saga of the Unique first” was first published in the Daily News on January 4, 2016